Are Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop winning against skeptics?

One of the problems we as skeptics and advocates for science-based medicine face is that quackery and pseudoscience are legion. They are everywhere. Worse, in many cases, they can be a good business model. For example, back when Oprah Winfrey was peddling The Secret, the magical mystical belief that if you only want something badly enough, the universe will somehow provide it, and promoting Jenny McCarthy’s antivaccine beliefs, skeptics were all over her. Many were the refutations of the nonsense that she promoted published in a wide variety of blogs, websites, and magazines; yet her brand wasn’t based on what skeptics thought. Criticism had little effect. Her brand was selling a fluffy, gauzy, “positive” attitude and lifestyle, and when she ended her long-running show it was on her terms, not because she was driven from the air by low ratings. A more recent example was, unsurprisingly, spawned by Oprah. I’m referring, of course, to “America’s Doctor” (whom I like to refer to as “America’s Quack“), Dr. Mehmet Oz. Many are the times I and others have documented the rank quackery and fear mongering he’s promoted on his show, be it homeopathy or the lie that carrying a cell phone in the bra causes breast cancer. Oz was even dragged before a Senate committee and humiliated, not having realized that he was a major target. It all seems to have had little effect on his brand. Indeed, when a group of physicians associated with an industry-aligned “science” group attacked Oz, it backfired miserably. Dr. Oz’s show is still around, still a “strong performer,” and was recently renewed through the 2018-2019 season.

Such were the thoughts roiling through my brain as I came across an article by Julia Belluz entitled Is Gwyneth Paltrow’s pseudoscience winning? Writing in the aftermath of recent incident in which the editors of Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop, that wretched hive of scum and quackery catering to affluent, woo-prone women by selling them jade eggs to stuff up their vaginas, magic energy stickers for health, and, of course, homeopathy and the usual assortment of alternative medicine, counterattacked against skeptics criticizing it by singling out one of its most persistent and vocal critics, Dr. Jen Gunter, Belluz wonders if skeptics are having any effect:

As the Goop website has emerged as a reliably laughable source of pseudoscience, a small army of journalists (myself included), doctors, researchers, and bloggers has evolved to pounce on Goop’s claptrap as soon as it’s out. We explain why jade eggs for vaginas, $30 sex “dust,” and body stickers that “promote healing” are misleading drivel. In the best cases, we use Goop’s bunk to teach people about how actual science works. It’s practically a parasitic relationship.

Recently, though, I’ve been asking myself what impact all this debunking is having.

Noting that she’s been criticizing Goop and Paltrow since 2013 and rattling off a list of examples of her work and that of others deconstructing the rank quackery peddled by goop on a daily basis, Belluz notes:

In the time we’ve been debunking Paltrow, the stories and books pointing out the absurdity and potential harms of Goop’s claims have certainly been read and bought. And it’s clear they resonate with certain readers.

But the Goop empire has also grown and expanded in influence. So I set about to understand why — and what impact, if any, critics have had on the brand.

She then notes that, despite the debunking Goop appears than ever. Even though it’s not a public company, which means that we don’t know how much money it’s making, Belluz notes that Goop raised $15 to $20 million in venture capital last year. Of course, compared to the Oprah and Oz juggernauts, that’s not particularly impressive, but it’s definitely nothing to sneeze at, either. Just last month, Paltrow held the first inaugural Goop Summit, which garnered extensive news coverage, some good to neutral, some mocking, but, as they say, any publicity is good publicity. One thing the publicity did reveal is just how much about the money Paltrow is:

This is Paltrow’s peculiar gift — or grift — and it was on full display at “In Goop Health,” her day-long event meant to bring her website’s “most requested and shared wellness content to life.” By last week, all 500 tickets, ranging from $500 to $1,500, had sold out; another event is planned for New York City in January.

Attendees were told via email to arrive at 9 a.m. The summit wouldn’t actually begin for another hour, which allowed enough time to shop inside a cavernous industrial space for Goop-branded products such as water bottles ($35), hoodies ($100) and a “G.”-branded flight pack consisting of four thin nesting canvas bags containing some magnesium packets, a sleep mask, earbuds and moisturizer ($198).

It was the physical manifestation of the day to come: For those willing to spend so much on so little, Paltrow will happily take your money.

The conference itself, of course, was chock full of every quackery imaginable, all peddled by celebrities and celebrity doctors. The dubious health modalities ranged from “leech facials” to aura photographs—”Holy quackery, Batman! Kirlian photography!”—to IV drips to earthing to crystal therapy (of course!) to the lectin avoidance diet, which was touted by Dr. Steve Gundry in his counterattack against Dr. Gunter. Indeed, going back to read about it now, I can’t believe that I only started to pay real attention to Goop within the last month. It’s been around since 2008, and Paltrow’s company’s been peddling utter nonsense a long time. I have a lot of catching up to do.

On the other hand, Belluz makes a good point. When I noted that the article by Dr. Steve Gundry and Dr. Aviva Romm was represented as being the first in a series of articles responding to Goop critics, my first reaction was, “Bring it!” It still is. However, my first enthusiastic reaction is now tempered by this realization:

Harvard Business School brand analyst Jill Avery told me this response may have been a calculated move to strengthen their brand and draw their customers closer. “The segment of consumers who engage with Goop are interested in alternative, homeopathic remedies,” Avery said. “So, when Dr. Gunter challenges Goop, she challenges the ideological foundation of its consumers as well.”

What’s more, Avery said, the Goop response evokes “themes from feminism, Eastern medicines and philosophies, and anti-establishment politics to incite [Paltrow’s] consumers to action: to make them feel as if they are under attack, to reassure them that their ideology will be supported by Goop, and to arm them with arguments to help them defend themselves.”

And:

Still, wouldn’t the negative press surrounding Goop’s health claims have made some dent in their business? Avery doesn’t think so. “The old adage ‘no news is bad news’ comes to mind here,” she said.

I also posed this question to Larry Light, author of Six Rules for Brand Revitalization and the chief executive of the brand consulting company Arcature. “You can’t attack a belief with facts,” he said. He agreed the Goop debunking would only galvanize its fans and thought that Paltrow’s new summits and magazine would further expand the Goop cult and deepen its members’ beliefs.

This is, of course, always the danger whenever skeptics go after a cult-like group like Goop acolytes. I also suspect that all the negative press last month mocking the Goop Wellness Summit struck a nerve, leading to this counterattack. Given the timing (not long after a whole lot of negative press about credulous, wealthy women spending ridiculous sums of money to imbibe the quackery being promoted by Goop and buy lots of Goop product), it’s also quite possible, likely even, that this attack on Dr. Gunter was an intentional business strategy to do exactly what is described above: Rally Goop’s fans and provide them with enemies who can be caricatured and attacked. Dr. Jen was a convenient first target because she fought fire with fire. When Paltrow attacked her critics by saying “If you want to fuck with me, bring your A game,” Gunter fired back by saying Dear Gwyneth Paltrow we’re not f**king with you we’re correcting you, XOXO Science. Yet, Goop used her use of the F-word as an excuse to paint her as somehow uncouth and crude compared to its “respected” doctors. Indeed, Dr. Gundry’s simultaneously pearl-clutching, mansplaining misogyny was indeed something to behold.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the next subject of Goop’s attacks is Tim Caulfield, who’s even written a book criticizing Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop. Then I could easily see Julia Belluz and other frequent critics of Goop finding their way onto the list of people attacked in regular counterattacks. The reason they weren’t first on the list is because Jen’s use of the F-bomb gave the editors an opening that the other targets didn’t provide. Never mind that it was only in response to Goop’s Dear Leader’s firing first. Indeed, Paltrow herself is a canny businesswoman who knows that there’s no such thing as bad publicity:

But really, the fact that Goop has survived – and is seemingly thriving – despite the endless mockery is because Paltrow, as a former darling of Hollywood, is all too aware of the power of the press. As she told Linkedin, “When you have an e-commerce business, no press is bad press”. Even in 2013 the scorn was beginning to fade, as Bloomberg’s Joel Stein admitted: “after a while you stop laughing at those $935 leather-and-gunmetal pants from Rag & Bone—instead, you want to own them”.

So does this mean that skeptics are wasting their time deconstructing Goop’s quackery? It’s not as though the website slowed down after this little dustup. It’s still peddling homeopathy and writing about how to “detoxify” yourself from “hidden mold.” There’s little reason to suspect that Goop will stop. Like many quacks, it’s basically immune to criticism. That doesn’t mean criticism isn’t worthwhile.

Belluz rightly points out that we “need to think about how to prevent Goopshit from taking off.” We do. We definitely do. She points out that we need to teach people how to think critically from a very early age. However, that’s not to say that “debunking” is worthless. If I thought that, I wouldn’t do it.

Think of it this way; liken it to the antivaccine movement. Goop basically peddles misinformation and nonsense on par with the pseudoscience and misinformation peddled by antivaxers. When I debunk antivaxers, I realize that I’m not going to change the minds of hardcore antivaxers. They’re too far down the rabbithole, and it’s incredibly hard to change the mind of a person like that. In fact, it’s damned near impossible. They have to be predisposed by other things in their life to change their mind before deconstructions of their beliefs might have an effect. No, I aim my efforts at those who might be on the fence, who might be susceptible to the pseudoscience of the antivaccine movement but are reachable in such a way that good information, entertainingly (I hope) presented, has a chance of beating back the bad.

It’s the same with Goop. I don’t expect to change a Goop editor’s mind. I don’t expect to change Gwyneth Paltrow’s mind in the unlikely event she were ever to read one of my posts. I don’t expect to change Dr. Gundry’s or Dr. Romm’s mind. I don’t expect to change the mind of someone buried deep into the Goop lifestyle. However, there are a lot of women who might see the rhetoric of female “empowerment,” coupled with the star power of Paltrow and her minions, and not have the background knowledge to know why what she’s peddling is bullshit. Skeptics can provide the knowledge, facts, and science to help them evaluate the products Goop sells. There’s value to that. There’s power to that. In fact, that’s real empowerment.